Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday Waffling (January 31st. 2015)

In a similar vein to the question a few weeks ago about Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire, the bonus post for January voted on by Patreon backers (actually going up on Tuesday) is going to be on Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory, and will serve as a prelude to a gradual series of posts covering the Culture novels. So, Banks. How familiar are you with him? What are favorites of yours? Least favorites? General thoughts?

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Moment Has Been Prepared For (The Day of the Doctor)

Well, at least it's just the one who committed genocide and not the one in that
awful coat.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The hour, in this case, was actually about seventy-five minutes long, commencing at 7:50 PM on November 23rd, 2013. Martin Garrix was at number one with “Animals,” with Lily Allen, Lorde, One Direction, Lady Gaga, and Eminem also charting. In the six months since The Name of the Doctor had aired, Edward Snowden had created a major international stir when he leaked a significant trove of classified information about the extent of surveillance operations being routinely carried out by the US and UK governments, Mohamed Morsi was deposed as President of Egypt in a military coup, and Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines and Vietnam, killing more than six thousand people. The man, of course, was Steven Moffat. 

The Day of the Doctor did not quite win universal praise. It just won stellar ratings, an impressive 88% AI rating, the distinction of being only the second episode of Doctor Who ever to hit the number one slot in the weekly ratings, and Doctor Who Magazine’s 50th Anniversary poll for the greatest story of all time. Nothing is all things to everyone, but it is difficult to imagine something coming much closer than The Day of the Doctor did. And yet The Day of the Doctor arrived after an enormously troubled production season, and was hardly an uncomplicated production in its own right, with executive producer Caro Skinner quitting the series a few weeks before shooting began, on top of the entire mess of Eccleston initially expressing interest and subsequently declining to reprise the role. That it avoided being an outright disaster given these circumstances seems a lucky break. That it was an insta-classic seems a small miracle.

At the heart of its success is a script by Moffat that is unapologetically committed to the episode’s grandeur. The episode deploys big set piece after big set piece, rarely waiting long between them. The TARDIS helicopter lift starts at the two minute mark. At seven minutes, we jump into the Time War. Billie Piper shows up six minutes later, David Tennant six minutes after that, at around the twenty minute mark. At twenty-seven minutes, Smith and Tennant share the screen for the first time. The big Zygon awakening/invasion breaks out at thirty-five minutes. Six minutes later is the big “did you ever count the children” three-way confrontation among the Doctors, which, while lacking the immediate grandeur of some of the other instances, is nevertheless a huge moment. The biggest slow period of the episode is the subsequent ten minutes building to the Doctors blasting their way out of Gallifrey Falls No More, bringing us to the fifty-two minute mark. By fifty-eight minutes, all three Doctors are agreeing to commit double genocide. And seven minutes later the thirteen-Doctor montage has kicked off. And six minutes thereafter the Curator shows. 

But for all the accelerated pace involved in jumping from set piece to set piece, what’s also striking is the way in which the individual set pieces are generally given room to breathe. It’s not quite accurate to say that Moffat has slowed down the pace for this story, because there are moments where it absolutely screams through sequences, but there’s a sense of what scenes are going to need room to breathe that hasn’t entirely been on display in Moffat’s Doctor Who since The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon. The result is an episode that feels, in many ways, like a linked sequence of mini-episodes. The Day of the Doctor watches very well as a single seventy-five minute bit of cinematic television, but it’s also an episode that divides very well into smaller segements. The counterpart to the huge chain of set pieces is that there’s a great place to pause and see how dinner’s coming every seven minutes or so. 

The other thing to point out, structurally, is that Moffat, in the most obvious move imaginable, tapped Nick Hurran to direct this. Hurran is typically adept, and even manages to make the 3-D effects work to his advantage at times - the handling of the dimensionally transcendental paintings is one of the few genuinely great shots in the history of the generally awful technology of stereoscopic film. Fast-paced scripts have always had a friend in Hurran, whose use of inserts and double images lets him communicate information with considerable efficiency, in a manner not unlike how Sherlock speeds things up with its superimposed text. He’s also incredibly deft at abandoning strict continuity editing, as in the Zygon breakout scene, which doesn’t parse as linear action at all, opting to very clearly communicate “oh no, Zygons everywhere, and now Osgood is cornered” instead of trying to actually show the entire process of Osgood running from the statue room to the elevator. 

That, at least, explains the structure. But The Day of the Doctor is far more than just that. It is a story that has to make a definitive statement on what Doctor Who is. And the way Moffat approaches that is revealing. It has been observed, not inaccurately, that The Day of the Doctor is largely about the new series. Yes, John Hurt is there to, in a real sense, allow the classic series to pass comment on the new one, but it’s worth noting that we pick up with the War Doctor, essentially, the day before Rose, a fact that’s heavily emphasized up front by Billie Piper’s intrusion from the Doctor’s immediate future. The major plot point, the Time War, is a new series invention. Yes, you’ve got the Zygons there as fanservice for David Tennant, and a smattering of classic series references and jokes, but this really is mostly about the recent past of the series. It’s much closer to being a new series version of The Three Doctors than it is to being The Thirteen Doctors

Some of this is simply a matter of practicality. Moffat surely rewatched The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors in planning this, and it would not have escaped his notice that The Five Doctors sagged badly under the weight of its cast size, and that was only really four Doctors. And down the road of trying to include all of the past Doctors lies a wealth of significant logistical challenges, to say the least. The only Doctors it would be straightforward to bring back were McGann, Eccleston, and Tennant, and one of them wasn’t interested. So it’s inevitable that this would be a new series-focused anniversary. 

But it’s also worth recalling what the Time War means in terms of the new series. By the end of the Davies era, the Time War had been built into, essentially, a metaphor for the cancellation - as the consequence of an actual narrative collapse. One of the things The Day of the Doctor is very much about, then, is suturing that wound. Between The Night of the Doctor and the War Doctor’s regeneration scene, Moffat tacitly removes the gap that had existed between McGann and Eccleston, symbolically restoring an unbroken narrative to Doctor Who so that it has something resembling an unbroken fifty year history.

There are, of course, lies in this. The Wilderness Years get a significant rewrite, in particular. Moffat remarked that he couldn’t really see McGann’s Doctor destroying Gallifrey, which is, to say the least, ironic given the Eighth Doctor Adventures. Yes, The Night of the Doctor goes out of its way to nod to Big Finish, but the McGann era is still a messy and hazily defined thing. All the same, it’s worth noting how much more destructive to the McGann era it would have been to give the War Doctor’s part to him. Deciding to have McGann’s Doctor only ever have flitted about the edges of the Time War at least leaves his era untouched, instead of declaring that the Doctor people enjoyed in Alien Bodies or The Chimes of Midnight, or even God help them, the TV Movie became, in the end, someone who committed double genocide. While the nature of what happened in the Wilderness Years remains muddy, whatever happened, it at least happened how fans remember it.

The bigger lie comes in the form of the War Doctor. Not, to be clear, because he’s a brazen and unapologetic retcon. Rather, it’s because he doesn’t actually fill the hole he’s meant to slot into. John Hurt is seventy-five, and The Day of the Doctor is overwhelmingly likely to be his only actual appearance in Doctor Who. His casting actually serves to render the Time War even less representable than it had been. Prior to The Day of the Doctor you could have done a Time War story provided Paul McGann was still alive. Now, however, the Time War is a truly lost era. (Yes, Engines of War exists. And someday the McGann/Eccleston book will too.) 

But in some ways this entire train of thought misses the point. One of the more on-point critiques that Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood make in the About Time series is the observation that the biggest problem with The Five Doctors is that it fails to use itself to kick off a new direction for the series. For all that it tries to culminate in an “well, isn’t this how it all started” moment, it’s not a story with consequences of any sort. This contrasts with The Three Doctors, which goes through a lengthy celebration of the past and then, more importantly, emphatically moves forward by restoring the Doctor’s ability to travel freely in time and space. Once again, it’s fairly obvious that Moffat looked at the past and thought about what worked and what didn’t, because The Day of the Doctor is firmly in the tradition of The Three Doctors. It’s over-hyping things to say that this is about setting up the next fifty years of Doctor Who (although it is worth noting that Moffat would ultimately make sure that the series began its fifty-first year with the Doctor at the beginning of a cycle of regenerations), but Moffat does use The Day of the Doctor to set up a new metaplot for the series. 

As with much of this story, there’s considerable subtlety to this. It is now inevitable that Gallifrey will return someday in Doctor Who. But it’s not inevitable along any particular timeframe, a point Moffat makes especially clear when he finishes his “of the Doctor” triptych by demonstrating that you can do Gallifrey stories other than “Gallifrey returns.” Instead The Day of the Doctor just marks a sort of narrative apex - the point where the course of things turns and we finally clearly start approaching Gallifrey’s return, which, let’s face it, some showrunner was always going to do. It’s not hard to imagine Moffat reaching the end of his time in charge of Doctor Who without ever bringing Gallifrey back. What we’re changing here really is the shape of Doctor Who’s metaplot.

But what’s more important, ultimately, is the reasoning behind that change. It’s not just that The Day of the Doctor reverses the outcome of the Time War, after all. It’s that it does so as part of an argument about the Doctor’s nature. This is, to a real extent, an outright moment of disagreement between Moffat and Russell T Davies. Moffat has said that he never really thought the Doctor would commit double genocide, and here he makes that argument explicit, having Clara frame her case for the Doctor not doing it in terms of what it means to be the Doctor, which in turn gets framed in terms of Terrance Dicks’s old “never cruel nor cowardly” line. The resolution of the story, in other words, is a statement of what Doctor Who is for, as a cultural object, which in turn justifies the existence of another fifty years of it.

(It’s also worth addressing the way in which Moffat handles the issue of the Doctor spending seven seasons thinking he’s committed a double genocide, namely by declaring that the Doctor doesn’t remember this adventure until it happens to Eleven. Moffat actually goes to considerable length throughout the story to make sure it fits meticulously with existing Doctor Who continuity, and so this is no surprise. But there’s also an emotional honesty to it that rarely gets remarked upon. It’s significant that it’s Matt Smith’s Doctor who gets to figure out how to save Gallifrey, and not Hurt or Tennant’s. It’s not until the Doctor accomplishes this - until he actually finds a better way - that he gets absolution. This is, in fact, entirely fitting. Eccleston, Tennant, and, until this story, Smith all thought they made the best choice available to them, and so lived with the consequences of that belief. It’s not that the Doctor was wrong about Gallifrey being destroyed in the Davies era - it’s that he hadn’t saved it yet.)

But what is this justification? Yes, he’s neither cruel nor cowardly, and he never gives up or gives in. Both lovely statements, but clearly not the whole of it. The Doctor, and Doctor Who itself, are more than just that. So what are they? Certainly many of the answers we’ve looked at throughout this project are not really present here. The relationship between eccentricity and the mainstream that Doctor Who has always mediated, the mercurial urge to tear down the world and always, endlessly change, these just aren’t the themes that are in play here, or, at least, they’re not at the forefront of the episode. 

No, instead we get material social progress. That, in the end, is the point of the Doctor. To find a better way. That’s why we need it, and, perhaps more to the point, why we always need more of it: because material social progress is always possible. Because there’s always more to do. Because making the world a better place is fundamentally, perpetually unfinished work. It is not, admittedly, the exact theme I would have preferred. But it’s a good theme, and a powerful one, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s a sensible choice for the fiftieth anniversary, because it’s the explanation for what Doctor Who is for that most obviously explains why it should keep going.

Which brings us, of course, to the cleverest thing that Moffat does in the course of The Day of the Doctor, which is, of course, the Curator. As we noted, despite creating a new Doctor to fill in the gap for the Time War, Moffat actually makes it even less possible to depict the Time War by having the War Doctor be played by a seventy-five year old actor with better things to do than pop back for another Doctor Who appearance. The same logic, of course, applies to the Curator. Tom Baker is eighty-one, and this almost certainly marks his final televised appearance in Doctor Who. But unlike the Time War, this does not create an unrepresentable space in the program’s past. Instead it creates one in the future. The Curator is a future era of Doctor Who that can never happen, but that is also now “canon,” as it were. The Doctor simultaneously will eventually regenerate into Tom Baker again and can never possibly regenerate into Tom Baker again. 

And this is, in the end, the real content and result of The Day of the Doctor. It doesn’t just heal the gap in the series’ past. It forever and permanently rejects the idea of Doctor Who being something with an ending. Sure, there may be more cancellations and Time Wars to come. But the story, like material social progress, will never actually be finished. Half a century down. Forever to go. Happy birthday, Doctor Who.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Super-Vampires Rule the Night (The Last War in Albion Part 81: Guy Fawkes Day, Bauhaus)

Comics Reviews will return on February 11th.

This is the ninth of fifteen parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Nine, focusing on Alan Moore's work on V for Vendetta for Warrior (in effect, Books One and Two of the DC Comics collection). An omnibus of all fifteen parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in a collected edition, along with the eventual completion of the story. UK-based readers can buy it here.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionGuy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

"Earth 43: A world of darkness and fear where super-vampires rule the night as the BLOOD LEAGUE." -Grant Morrison, Multiversity Guidebook

Figure 621: William of Orange was crowned William III in the
Glorious Revolution. Here his 1688 arrival is depicted by
James Thornhill (1675-1734).
It is not that this is entirely unsympathetic. Fawkes himself was a Catholic supremacist, but he fit into the same centuries-long tradition of religious dissidence in England that would eventually produce William Blake. And as David Lloyd noted, the basic cheek of trying to blow up Parliament is rather appealing. In the end, though, is not so much the precise ethics of Fawkes the man that are most relevant to the development of V for Vendetta as it is the holiday that sprung up in the wake of the plot. Following its uncovering, the public were allowed to celebrate the plot’s failure by lighting bonfires. The next January, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act, which established a standing holiday commemorating the King’s survival. This holiday persisted, not least because in 1688 William of Orange’s arrival in England to overthrow James II happened to land on November the 5th, the day after his birthday, giving the holiday new resonances. Over time the custom of bonfires came to incorporate first burning the pope in effigy, and then, somewhat more moderately, burning Guy Fawkes in effigy - a tradition that led to the creation of the Guy Fawkes mask, with allowed one to give one’s anti-Catholic effigy a suitably grotesque holiday. 

Figure 622: An 1870s effigy of Guy Fawkes built by a London fruitvendor.
The holiday also, in the 19th century, gradually became a holiday more associated with the working class, a transition that led to a transition away from celebration of victories of the monarchy and towards a more anti-authoritarian approach. Over the course of the century, Fawkes found himself incorporated into popular fiction, starting with William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1841 novel Guy Fawkes, which rehabilitated Fawkes into a more sympathetic character who, by 1905, was appearing as a hero in illustrated books like The Boyhood Days of Guy Fawkes; Or, the Conspirators of Old London. This was very much the spirit in which Moore was introduced to the holiday - he talks of how “when parents explained to their offspring about Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up Parliament, there always seemed to be an undertone of admiration in their voices, or at least there did in Northampton.” 

Figure 623: A 1981 anti-Thatcher riot in Toxteth.
But Moore and Lloyd’s intercession proved well-timed as well. Moore mentions that the autumn of 1981, when they were developing V for Vendetta, was the last year that the mask was widely available before it was “phased out in favour of green plastic Frankenstein monsters geared to the incoming celebration of an American Halloween.” The specific dating of this transition is surely exaggerated by Moore, but it is true that the specific link between the holiday and Guy Fawkes was in decline at the time, with the holiday gradually becoming more known as Bonfire Night. (Moore notes that this was unsurprising following “a summer of anti-Thatcher riots across the UK.”) Moore and Lloyd, then, found themselves in the fortuitous position of having based their comic on an image that was popular enough to be immediately recognizable, but that was also losing its stature such that they could imbue it with meaning relatively unfettered by its material past.

Figure 624: A 1965 advertisement for fireworks featuring
a paper Guy Fawkes mask.
So what matters about Guy Fawkes is ultimately the way in which a symbol of radical and transgressive rejection of institutional power gradually became a more ambivalent symbol while also shedding most of the particulars of what that rejection actually consisted of, such that he became, in effect, a sort of socially sanctioned symbol of general insurrection. Combined with the image of the Guy Fawkes mask itself, which allowed Moore to render his central character a faceless and expressionless cipher, the idea allowed him a main character who embodied not any specific ideology, but rather a sort of generic objection to all ideologies - an approach summed up by Moore’s decision to title the first chapter of V for Vendetta “The Villain” and to give V his line proclaiming, “I’m the King of the Twentieth Century. I’m the bogeyman. The villain. The Black sheep of the family.” In other words, to the rejection of authority implicit in anarchism.

Figure 625: Dennis the Menace being spanked
in 1969.
But what is striking about V and the Guy Fawkes mask is its connection to an authorized rejection of authority. The 19th century transformation of the fifth of November into a working class holiday fits into a longstanding tradition of carefully controlled rebellion common to the British children’s comics like The Beano and The Dandy. Guy Fawkes Night was, in many ways, a structural mirror of any given installment of Dennis the Menace - both feature a gleeful subversion of the social order with lots of explosions and mayhem, but more importantly, both also promptly end, Dennis the Menace, generally, with the reassertion of authority implicit in Dennis being spanked, Guy Fawkes Night by the rollover of the calendar onto another grim Victorian workday. Guy Fawkes represents a sanctioned rebellion - a specific place that institutional power allows dissent to exist, largely to keep it from existing anywhere else.

Figure 626: Max Ernst's Europe after the Rain II (1940-42)
But as Moore recognized, the fact that rebellion is an assumed part of the social order is itself a source of power. And Guy Fawkes serves as an effective image of this simply because of the sheer degree of rebellion he represents. If an attempt to blow up Parliament and assassinate the king can be recuperated into society as an authorized rebellion, the space available to rebellion is, perhaps, larger than it initially appears. And indeed, this helps explain why Lloyd’s Guy Fawkes suggestion caused the entire concept to click together for Moore. In “Behind the Painted Smile,” Moore recalls a list he made of things he wanted to include or reflect in V for Vendetta. The list he offers in “Behind the Painted Smile” reads: “Orwell. Huxley. Thomas Disch. Judge Dredd. Harlan Ellison’s Repent Harlequin Said the Tick-Tock Man. Catman and Prowler In The City At The Edge Of The World by the same author. Vincent Price’s Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood. David Bowie. The Shadow. Night-Raven. Batman. Farenheit 451. The writings of the New Worlds school of science fiction. Max Ernst’s painting ‘Europe After the Rains’. Thomas Pynchon. The atmosphere of British Second World War films. The Prisoner. Robin Hood. Dick Turpin…”

This is, obviously, a somewhat ludicrously diverse list, and that is in many regards the point. Everything upon the list is indeed reflected within V for Vendetta to some extent, and most (though not all) feature some consideration of a singular figure rebelling against an authoritarian regime, to varying degrees of effect, and, perhaps more notably, with various degrees of skepticism about that rebellion. But as Moore explains, “there was some element in all of these that I could use, but try as I might I couldn’t come up with a coherent whole from such disjointed parts.” But after Lloyd’s Guy Fawkes idea was mooted, the connection Moore was looking for finally emerged - the British “tradition of making heroes out of criminals.” In a 2005 interview, Moore went further, highlighting how many of the characters along these lines  are “sociopaths” who are “thoroughly unpleasant,” noting that “we love a gallant rogue and we also love a murdering, psychotic, horrific travesty of a human being. I thought that maybe I could exploit this.” 

Figure 627: Advertisement for David J's V for Vendetta
single and other merchandise. (From Warrior #24, 1984)
This fascination with the intersection between the marginalized and mainstream elements of culture and with the notion of authorized rebellion also sheds light on one of Moore and Lloyd’s  collaborators in V for Vendetta, David J, who wrote the music for “This Vicious Cabaret” and who went on to record an official V for Vendetta EP featuring his own rendition of “This Vicious Cabaret” along with a setting of the cabaret song from “Variety” and some instrumental pieces. David J would go on to be a member of Moore’s magical society The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, contributing to Moore’s five spoken word workings in the 90s and early 00s, and so it is worth pausing to unpack his contributions to Moore’s earlier career, and, for that matter, Moore’s early contribution to David J’s career, which began in earnest, like Moore’s, in 1979 with the formation of the band Bauhaus.

Figure 628: Poster for a 1983 Bauhaus event.
In many ways, Bauhaus was just a subtle alteration on several previous bands that had formed in Northampton, generally featuring some combination of David J, his younger brother Kevin Haskins, and Daniel Ash. In late 1978, Haskins and Ash formed one with bassist Chris Barber and a friend of Ash’s, Peter Murphy, as the vocalist. (Murphy, despite the fact that he had no musical experience to speak of, in Ash’s opinion, looked right for a lead vocalist.) After a few weeks, however, Ash decided Barber was not really working out, and instead invited David J as bassist. J suggested the band’s name based on his love of the German art school of the same name, originally proposing Bauhaus 1919 (the year of the school’s foundation) before shortening it to simply Bauhaus, and they played their first official gig as a New Year’s Eve show (having previously crashed a Pretenders show by bringing their own amps to the union hall where the band was going to play and simply setting up and starting playing their own set). 

Two days later, while biking home from a warehouse job, David J had an idea for a lyric, and stopped to jot it down on the back of a series of address labels. He took it to rehearsal that night, and Ash matched it with a chord structure based around a sliding barre chord that left the E and B strings open. Haskins added a bossa-nova drumbeat (J notes that “he had been taking lessons from an old jazz guy, and this was one of the two beats he knew”), and J opted for a simple walking bassline, over which Murphy sang the lyric: “White on white, translucent black cape’s back on the rack… Bela Lugosi’s dead.” As J describes it, “we all just fell in with each other. It was as if we had been playing this strange song for years.” They debuted it the next day at a gig in Kingsthorpe, and went into the studio to record it and some other tracks a couple of weeks later. 

Figure 629: Poster for the 1931 Universal Dracula
film, starring Bela Lugosi.
Given that the song was in effect the product of a jam session, the sweep and scale of the studio version is perhaps not entirely surprising. It is, however, undoubtedly impressive: the song clocks in at nine-and-a-half minutes long. The melody is driven entirely by David J’s baseline for the first ninety seconds of the song, starting with him plucking the first note of his three-note bass line, then beginning the walkdown, letting each of the three notes hang. Only after those first ninety seconds is there any variation, and that just consists of him filling in the extra beats of each measure with repetitions of the note as Ash adds a trilling guitar effect with a hammer-on. The chords don’t make an appearance until 2:20; the vocal line takes until nearly the three minute mark. There’s another ninety seconds of vocal-free ambience at five minutes, and the last two minutes are also almost totally wordless, and, indeed mostly just feature Haskins’s drumming with occasional bass interjections from David J. These long expanses in which the song is left only to its simple and sparse instrumentation, augmented only by some echo effects whipped up by Ash after studio engineer Derek Tompkins taught him how to use a delay unit, the song has an ethereal tone that suits its vampiric subject matter. Equally crucial, however, is Murphy’s voice - a luscious baritone that hits the exact mix of austerity and camp necessary to sell a song about the star of the 1931 Universal Dracula film that includes the lines “The virginal brides file past his tomb, strewn with time’s dead flowers, bereft in deathly bloom” and repeated chants of “undead undead undead.” As Alan Moore put it, “Jay’s bass and Haskins’ drums provided the music with its elegant and powerful metal skeleton, while Murphy’s hard, haunting voice and Ash’s molten glass guitar provided its white, jewel-studded flesh.”

The result was a minor hit that stuck around in the independent charts for two years and, perhaps more significantly, marked the birth of goth music. [continued]

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

His Last Vow

There is, I think, a real case to be made that this is Moffat's best-ever script, although to be fair there are ways in which it's difficult to tell. Certainly this is elevated tremendously by the work of everyone else involved. It is ridiculous to pretend that this episode can be praised without acknowledging the toweringly good work turned in by Nick Hurran, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Amanda Abbington, and really, stopping there does plenty of people discredit. All the same, the script is a work of stunning genius.

It seems impossible to begin anywhere other than the ending. As I have noted before, this is a script that blatantly advocates for the extra-judicial murder of Rupert Murdoch. Sure, yes, Magnussen is only a transparent metaphor for Murdoch and not Murdoch himself, but all the same, and especially given how willing Moffat has been in interviews to double down and say that he thinks killing Magnusson was the right thing to do, it's hard to overemphasize the moment, especially given the glorious bluntness with which Mary puts it: "People like Magnussen should be killed. That’s why there are people like me."

And indeed, this quote gets at one of the central questions of His Last Vow, namely "what exactly sort of person is Mary Watson?" Actually, this is in some ways the only central question of His Last Vow. Certainly a central question is not the superficial issue of "how far ahead of the game is Sherlock," although this is possibly worth unpacking. We have, by this point, been trained by two consecutive episodes to realize that this is not actually a question upon which Sherlock is inclined to put much weight. The nature of the game is deliberately constructed to twist and wriggle around. Much of the episode is structured around a pair of contrived editing tricks, and while there are occasional clues ("I have an excellent memory') and the episode does technically play fair, it's still blatantly changing the rules of the episode in arbitrary and essentially unguessable ways.

Whether you think this is clever or not is largely a personal decision. But in what we might call the normal order f things, the point of these fair but unguessable twists would be to find ways of putting the hero in considerable danger. And yet in His Last Vow, the two times in which Sherlock is disastrously wrong (as opposed to when he's just blindsided by Mary) are not actually particular problems for him. When he's wrong about the glasses in the restaurant it's essentially irrelevant - he moves calmly on to his Christmas plan barely skipping a beat. Being wrong about Appledore's physical existence is at least more of a problem, but it's clear he always had "shoot the fucker in the head" as a fallback plan, what with telling John to bring his gun.

Which makes sense. Sherlock, after all, is an ontological character, defined as the one who is always ahead of everybody else in the game. And so the question in His Last Vow is never really whether Sherlock is going to win. The question is what winning is going to end up meaning - a question that's foregrounded from the moment we learn that the case requires him to give into his addictions, which is to say, from the first time we see him in the episode.

It is in this context that the episode's real question, the nature of Mary Watson, must be understood. Even though it's not really even raised as a question until the halfway point (Mary drops out of the story after the scene at the hospital, and doesn't resurface until she shoots Sherlock), the entire episode is about her. And we know this from the title, which is set up explicitly in the previous episode. But the title further emphasizes that this is a story about the consequences and nature of victory. This isn't a story about who Mary is - and to be fair, the answer to that is neither terribly interesting nor terribly surprising. Sure, her shooting Sherlock is surprising, but once that happens, the revelation that the person who shot Sherlock is an assassin is not. Nor is it a story about who Magnussen is. It's a story about a vow, and about the meaning and consequences thereof.

This puts us in familiar territory with Moffat, not least because of the fate of Mary's textual equivalent. The entirety of Sherlock Season Three is built around the way in which Mary is a narrative time bomb. In a standard narrative, the nature of the bomb's explosion would be Mary's death, so that John can take blood-stained and suitably grim revenge. Especially since she's pregnant, which is worth, like, double points when fridging a character. And so the constant tension in this story - which is, of course, just Moffat's standard "what sort of story are we telling here" tension - becomes a constant threat that something is going to go terribly wrong for Mary.

It doesn't, of course. And that is in many ways the point. Sherlock's last vow could never really go unfulfilled. It would go against the nature of him as a hero, at least in Moffat's conception of what that means. This isn't about being perfect, clearly - indeed, Sherlock gets almost every single call wrong in this story. It's about something altogether subtler - something that goes back to Mary's line, and also to Mycroft's observation that Sherlock fancies himself a dragonslayer. Heroes exist, for Moffat, for the purposes of going to extremes that we cannot.

This is, ultimately, the real content of the ending. Sherlock is tragically wrong when he proclaims himself to not be a hero. Because what are our heroes for if not to save us from bullying monstrosities like Magnussen? Does this in its own way make Sherlock monstrous? Of course it does, to an extent that genuinely terrifies him, hence the shot in which we see him as a child in the face of the SWAT team and helicopters. But nevertheless, it is heroic. Sherlock saves not just John and Mary's marriage, but everyone Magnussen owned.

But His Last Vow is not some grim meditation on the monstrosity of heroes. This is an aspect of it, certainly, but the idea that heroes are just the monsters we like is a premise, not the point of the exercise. For all the sense that Sherlock has crossed some sort of line by putting a bullet in Magnussen, he gets off scot free at the end of the story, if only via a timely intervention by Moriarty. This is not a story about the angst of the hero. Nor does it ever seem like one, or else the addiction plot thread would have played out very differently.

Because, of course, the dramatic heart of the episode is the scene among Sherlock, John, Mary, and Mrs. Hudson. It's an astonishing scene in which everybody puts in a jaw-dropping performance. (Really, watch it and look at how much Amanda Abbington contributes to the scene despite getting exactly one word of dialogue - a word she delivers with astonishing nuance.) It's a scene in which line after line is stellar, and almost every subsequent scene exists entirely to unpick the consequences of it.

Of course it's great, though. There is perhaps no plot more Moffaty than "Sherlock resolves a marital dispute that erupts when John's wife turns out to be a top class assassin." But this is because it addresses the theme that's been consuming Moffat for nearly a decade now: how do you make a "realistic" psychology for a hero that doesn't devolve into a deconstructionist rejection of the basic idea of heroism. And so we have John and Mary, desperately trying to balance the fact that they are heroes, with all the madness that entails, and people, and Sherlock killing dragons just to keep them together.

Holding it all together is Nick Hurran, upping his game once again. As ever, his willingness to embrace the artifice of television serves Moffat's script well. Hurran never lets go of the fact that this is a story, adding beautiful touches of sheer artificiality. (My favorite is the plant that moves across the room as Sherlock falls, which happens for no reason but to make it look like the room is actually tilting, despite the fact that the story is in no way trying to suggest that it is, although the use of Christmas lights to smooth a transition from Baker Street to Sherlocks' parents is also gorgeously bonkers.) Obviously the "Sherlock figures out how not to die" sequence is particularly good in his hands, and it is in hindsight something of a wonder that it took until Hurran's sixth episode under Moffat for anyone to give him a proper, honest to god dream sequence. But he's also very, very sharp in the small character moments, with an impeccable sense of how to use closeups and reaction shots.

The result is an episode that is as experimental and postmodern as anything that Moffat has done, but that nevertheless feels oddly grounded and straightforward. Moffat has a growing sense of when to just hand solid drama to skilled actors and get out of their way. After a year of Doctor Who where he seemed intent on accelerating the pace more and more, here he really starts to explore the benefits of slamming on the brakes and lingering on a scene. Having learned how much he can get away with trimming, here is where he really starts to show how to balance that, starting with as breakneck a pace as he's ever managed, and ending with a methodical resolution that takes vast and deserved amounts of time to focus on the Watsons. The result is simply one of the best ninety minutes of television ever produced - an unabashed masterpiece made all the better once you realize that this isn't just a good day at the office, but the triumphant debut of a new style for Moffat, and the point where he goes from an innovative and experimental writer to one who has learned a tremendous amount from his experiments and has moved on to learning exactly when to deploy those tricks.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Dear Santa: The Doctors Revisited (Matt Smith)

You can tell that we've reached the present day quite early on, not least because Matt Smith suddenly shows up to have opinions on the show, having not been interviewed about any of his predecessors. But the real giveaway is the choices of episodes in the first segment, when introducing the character of the Eleventh Doctor. Every previous episode displayed a strong bias towards the earliest episodes for a Doctor. Whereas this pulls almost entirely from Season 7B, unabashedly positioning this as the present day of Doctor Who.

Yes, we eventually look back a few years and do the Ponds, which is somewhat historicized, but there's no added insight to be had. These are the same talking points from Doctor Who Confidential and endless publicity interviews, dutifully trotted out again. Their context is only altered by the preceding ten episodes of this, which serve to make all of this look like the telos of Doctor Who itself.

With the historical perspective that a year allows us, this is not quite true. The focus on how Matt Smith, while the youngest actor ever to play the part, makes the Doctor seem old is a common talking point, and indeed was brought up in relation to the Capaldi casting, by this time long since announced. More interesting is the segment on Clara, which came at a point where she was widely viewed as a frightfully generic companion. There's not a lot, but it's acutely clear that Coleman in particular sees more depth in the character, and has ideas for what to do with her. The argument that Deep Breath doesn't constitute a soft reboot of Clara but rather the moment when everybody started seeing what was always there has some solid support here.

Elsewhere, we can also see how this is quietly setting up the immediate future. There's not much that directly tees up The Day of the Doctor, but the features on Madame Kovarian, the Silence, and the Weeping Angels quietly serve as a primer for Time of the Doctor. And, of course, there's the fact that when this aired, Smith was a lame duck Doctor. His successor had been announced, and indeed, was either a week off from his debut or had debuted yesterday (depending on whether you watched this in the US or the UK - this was the only one to debut first in the UK).

And so there's an odd dualism here. On the one hand, this does what one always suspected it would: presents the Moffat era as the ultimate in Doctor Who. Of course it does. The point of all of these sorts of specials is promotion of the show, and has been since Confidential. But on the other, it leads the show right up to the brink of a known transition. There's a triumph as we reach the present, but also, and in some ways more importantly, a sort of "right, on to the next half-century" attitude. Which is a good place to be after fifty years.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Waffling (January 24th, 2015)

As we find ourselves increasingly adrift from when it was an appropriate question, what were your favorite pieces of media of 1994? Films, TV shows, comics, books, music, video games, plays, whatever.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Hey, Turn That Down: The Doctors Revisited (David Tennant)

At last, we reach the end of history, with an episode that is set up to, basically, repeat the same talking points about the Tenth Doctor that were being used when he was still on screen. This is as straightforward as it is possible to be - an unabashed display case for an era of Doctor Who that everybody knows is a classic.

Which, fair enough. There's really no getting around the fact that the Tennant era was wildly popular, and that Tennant is always going to be one of the iconic portrayals of the Doctor. There are no apologias to make, and as of 2013, at least, the Tennant era hadn't slipped into history, not least because Tennant was going to be making a return in less than a month anyway, with no explanation of why he looked older or anything like that necessary. There was, really, no other way to do this.

That said, the selection of what to focus on is interesting. Noticeably absent is any standing in the rain. There's a little bit of the Bad Wolf Bay scene from Doomsday, but for the most part the two iconic emotional scenes from Tennant's era, the departures of Rose and Donna, are entirely skipped over. This is even more striking given that Martha's departure is featured in detail. There's no mention of Human Nature/Family of Blood either. In other words, all the moments of Tennant's Doctor being pushed to extremes are skipped.

Instead we get a focus on Tennant in default mode. There are sizeable clips from The Sontaran Stratagem and The Idiot's Lantern, both of which are fine scenes, but which would appear on almost nobody's instinctive list of major David Tennant scenes. To some extent, this demonstrates the level of confidence that they clearly have in the material: nobody is trying to sell David Tennant. Indeed, it's somewhat refreshing to look at him in these scenes. Tennant's best scenes are indeed extraordinary, but it's easy to forget that he was also extraordinarily good at just being a foundation for the show to build on.

This also gets at the closest thing to a problem with this episode, however. For all its confidence, it shares the Peter Davison episode's strange failure to actually ever describe what this iteration of the Doctor is actually like. Loads of talking heads are ready to line up and, quite rightly, say how wonderful David Tennant is, but nobody can actually nail down what his Doctor was like and why he was so iconic. Perhaps it's simply too soon, but either way, it's a glaring omission.

The other strange thing is the story chosen. It's not that it's a poor choice - indeed, there may be no story quite so Tennanty as The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. But the story notably, gets no coverage in the episode itself, unlike the previous few, which took pains to get the viewer up to speed on what they were going to watch. This works fine - really, who needs a substantial introduction to the most popular Doctor Who story ever? But it does mean that Moffat is, in effect, the only way into the story.

And so it's notable that Moffat breaks from the norm in The Doctors Revisited and opts to frame The Stolen Earth/Journey's End in terms of the writer as opposed to in terms of the actor. He describes it straightforwardly, as a celebration of the Davies era, and, more importantly, as a deserved celebration. The position is hardly a shock - Moffat has always, after all, been unhesitating in his praise for Davies. But the explicit acknowledgement, not just of the era's quality, but of the creative force behind it is a significant but revealing fact: as much as we have, by 2013, firmly moved past the Davies era, it remains, creatively, utterly and completely in his debt.